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April 12, 2005

Comments

Franklin

A theory is just an explanatory idea about something. As such, it's neutral. And there's only one that seems to hold true at all times, by Alfred Korzybski: the map is not the territory.

"Theory" looks like it has outlived its usefulness as a term to denote "convoluted thinking and needless jargon," which is okay - I feel the same about the ability of "postmodernism" to describe, well, anything - but convoluted thinking and needless jargon nevertheless remain big problems in art writing and ought to be resisted. "Theory" also connotes a stance about art that values philosophical rumination over taste and observation - a conflation of map and territory, or a substitution of map for territory.

So we're not just talking about choosing between poetics - we're talking about whether the poetics are a product of the experience or vice-versa. The former is humble and heartfelt; the latter is haughty and academic.

MS

My line about different kinds of poetics was partly meant as intentional overstatement. Nevertheless, as your preference for certain kinds of language over others attests, it's not without its grain of truth.

I hate the term "theory" because, as I've said before, it encourages a most unphilosophical view of different methodologies and their philosophical foundations as a sort of mix 'n' match grab bag of interpretive approaches. I'm all for letting the problem dictate the approach, but I don't like to confuse that with intellectual promiscuity.

I also find the antithesis between "philosophical rumination" and "taste and observation" to be unwarranted. There is no reason to have to chose between the two. Phenomenology, for instance, grounds itself in observation, and it's hardly alone in the history of philosophy in doing so. Heck, when Dan and I point toward one of those suspicious Frenchman, it more often than not turns out to be a guy who wrote a book entitled The Primacy of Perception.

One of the problems with leaving the matter at taste and observation, though they are fundamental, is the two together don't necessarily provide all the tools needed to answer certain kinds of questions. And even though they are basic, that does not mean they are entirely naturally given. The apparently untheoretical rests on its own, unspoken and therefore unexamined, theory. That, too, needs to be held to scrutiny.

Franklin

I also find the antithesis between "philosophical rumination" and "taste and observation" to be unwarranted. There is no reason to have to choose between the two.

Bingo. I agree with this. That's how we know whether theories work or not - they can be observed to fit the facts to some degree. And this is my problem with, say, the more outré aspects of Derrida - the poetics start generating other poetics and at that point the object sulks out the door. Back when I was still considering a PhD I was in the office of the IFA-NYU and asked the counselor to compare his program to that at Columbia. He said, well, we had a guy from Columbia in here at a lecture not long ago and we were discussing a particular painting, and at one point someone suggested that we go across the street to see it, and he said no, that wouldn't be necessary - that kind of examination isn't necessary. This is substituting map for territory.

The apparently untheoretical rests on its own, unspoken and therefore unexamined, theory.

It's not theory all the way down - at some point, you hit fact. I haven't read Merleau-Ponty (on the basis of your high praise, I'll remedy that), but I have read The Book of Five Rings. One can fruitfully discuss timing, tactics, attitude, and spirit regarding the sword, but at the end of the duel, you want to be the guy who walks away instead of the guy who gets julienned.

Miguel Sánchez

at one point someone suggested that we go across the street to see it, and he said no, that wouldn't be necessary - that kind of examination isn't necessary.

I certainly agree with you that this sort of attitude is bizarre. Not that we can't talk about a work without it being directly present, but still. When I attended the color field conference at Harvard a few months ago, one of the art history guys talking said something very similar. As I recall, he remarked that he wasn’t the sort of art history who went into museum storerooms to look at things. This was in front of an audience of mostly conservators, who had arranged a view of some paintings after his talk, so I’m not sure what he was thinking.

As for your latter point, I don't think it's theory all the way down. But neither is it a sword fight – we’re not talking about performing an action, or not only about that, but about the status of claims to knowledge. In that sense, there’s no approach that can claim an assumed, untheorized validity. Although when one does look at the act of interpretation, as I’ve been hinting in my comments regarding Bois’s article, one sees that however theoretically informed it may be, it operates in certain fundamental ways. That doesn’t make much sense at the moment, but I hope to get a post out of it later.

I certainly recommend Merleau-Ponty to anyone, though I have to warn you that it is pretty dense academic continental philosophy. Nothing like the pomo favorites, I hasten to add, but not exactly a day at the beach in terms of reading, either. I really like his essays on painting, especially the final one, “Eye and Mind”. But this quote I posted the other day from his magnus opus, The Phenomenology of Perception, has always been a favorite of mine as a sort of philosophical credo.

Franklin

...there’s no approach that can claim an assumed, untheorized validity.

I'm not so sure - go take that up with Julienne-san on the ground over there.

Okay, art's not a swordfight, although if it was, it sure would turn a trip to the museum into an exciting afternoon. Nevertheless, there is an approach that can claim an assumed, untheorized validity - sensory experience. "munching a plum on / the street a paper bag / of them in her hand / They taste good to her / They taste good / to her. They taste / good to her".

They sure do. And they taste good to you and me too; about that, there's no question - the poem wouldn't work otherwise. There's the fundamental basis on which interpretation operates, or ought to. Art that tries to bypass sensory experience needs theory to function, making up for a lack of territory by addidng to the map, and it will never be as good as those plums.

Thanks for the Merleau-Ponty recommendations.

Kriston

I'm going to acknowledge your larger point re indiscriminate boundaries dividing (or not) theory and criticism but defend my specific distinction about Bois's article on looks-and-quacks grounds. I didn't see that it outlined a generic theoretical practice but instead an art historical applique. The distinction is only really important to our discussion in terms of accessibility—it seemed to me that it very well could be published in a high-volume, cerebral, and public magazine; that's not a claim I would generally make with this genre of writing that we're referring to (for argument's sake) as theory. But I'll let you make your point about the fundamental ways that the article operates before I respond in much greater detail on the point.

The new art history is far from an ideal language project.

Agreed. I thought to hash out, as Dan did, theorists whose work I preferred and to what extent, but gave it a rest instead. The point that I think is important to recognize is that the ideal-language project art history, by necessity, may better resemble the current language than the ideal that I suspect some of pomo's critics have in mind. To return to the Bois article, I did not get the impression that it was operating at that high art historical level of investigation.

I think a post on Barthelme is in order, who I thought magnificently blurred boundaries between theoretical commentary and fictional practice and is a very a propos source for this conversation.

One more clarification, re: Gibson vs. Fried—I think you took the wrong point away from my post. Whether or not Gibson is correct about Fried, his post serves as a good example as to how to go about this sort of complaint about theory in application. (I'm for the moment agnostic about the Demand/Fried debate, neither having seen Demand nor having the exhaustive knowledge of Fried to anticipate how his theory would operate with an exotic artist like Demand. Though I just picked up Absorption and Theatricality, recently reread Art and Objecthood, and may visit NYC this month, so I may be emboldened to get into the mix.) There's been a number of posts/comments recently that amount to "theory sux," and though in some sense you could take that lesson from Gibson's post, he's at least footnoted his case. As have you yours. I've harped before about the different public reason standards that regulate the art and political blogospheres, and I'm happy to see debate in the former more closely resemble that of the latter. Which I should probably adhere to more closely myself; as something of a polemicist, my point can get away from me pretty quickly in hyperbole.

Miguel Sánchez

defend my specific distinction about Bois's article on looks-and-quacks grounds. I didn't see that it outlined a generic theoretical practice but instead an art historical applique.

Oh, I agree. My question ("what does this mean?") was rhetorical. When I say that "readers recognized the article as a more-or-less standard type of art historical investigation", I'm including myself in that group. It's an interpretive essay - one that uses particular conceptual tools honed in recent years, and with concerns characteristic of its time, but not one that has a fundamentally different epistemological status than any other such essay chosen at random from earlier types of art historical practice.

I agree with what you say here regarding Todd's post, which I thought was great. I just didn't think it acheived the status of a "refutation" of Fried. Though I have to say, I've never got the impression that Todd feels that "theory sux", in that post or elsewhere. But he can speak for himself, if he cares to, when he returns.

I've harped before about the different public reason standards that regulate the art and political blogospheres, and I'm happy to see debate in the former more closely resemble that of the latter.

Really? Does that mean we should start calling each other asshats? Now I've got to go think up obscene nicknames for everyone...

Dan

Wanker.

Miguel Sánchez

Wanker.

Asshat.

Kriston

Deeply unserious trolls, all of you!

Miguel Sánchez

In a distant voice from across the sea, Todd reminds us how he feels about different approaches to art.

Miguel Sánchez

Nevertheless, there is an approach that can claim an assumed, untheorized validity - sensory experience.

Tell it to Bishop Berkeley. More seriously, I don't doubt that the plums taste good. And that observation may be the beginning of some deeper knowledge. But I just don't see how one creates a discipline that advances knowledge simply be aggregating sense data. Something else is needed. And answering "connoisseurship" is to offer a theory.

Franklin

I try to write about what happens when real viewers--naive or informed, curious or apathetic--take a moment to have an experience with an art object.

(bows to Todd)

I just don't see how one creates a discipline that advances knowledge simply by aggregating sense data. Something else is needed.

Particularly if one is up for tenure.

Human beings being what they are, sensory expierence gives rise to associations - thoughts, emotions, memories, the whole messy panoply of human consciousness. If theory can explain some of that, fine. But whatever theories don't explain it should be tossed. Ruthlessly. And any theoretical culture that becomes so enamored of its ideas that it won't countenance challenges ought to be the subject of regular spankings.

I think that it's good to remember that life, at some basic level, cannot be figured out.

Miguel Sánchez

But whatever theories don't explain it should be tossed. Ruthlessly. And any theoretical culture that becomes so enamored of its ideas that it won't countenance challenges ought to be the subject of regular spankings.

That's what the philosophers tell us. Who am I to say they're wrong?

Todd

Geesh! Don't you folks have anything better to do? I mean really. That's a lot of verbiage spilled there.

Let me make my position clear. I'm not part of the "theory sux" crowd. Theory can be bad, theory can be good; theory can be useful, and theory can be useless.

What I found interesting about Fried's Artforum piece was the fact that he was able to step back and extrapolate a framework for contemplating Demand's work that provided a new way of looking at and understanding it. In this case, theory is good.

It's a well worn critique of Art and Objecthood that Fried provided the best lens through which to understand the minimalist project in the context of denouncing their work. That's the split between theory and practical criticism. He was able to make the meta leap and provide all of us with a new way of approach the work, but when he returned to address the work itself something else he was bringing with him caused him (I believe) to make a misstep of judgment. It happens. Strangely, for Fried, it happens often. While he didn't lionize Demand in his Artform piece to the extent that he hounded the minimalists in Art and Objecthood, I got the sense that his practical criticism was praising the work that I found wanting.

Now, enough of this noise for me. Tapas to eat, sangria to drink, narrow medieval streets to walk, etc.

Miguel Sánchez

enough of this noise for me. Tapas to eat, sangria to drink, narrow medieval streets to walk

Wanker.

Franklin

enough of this noise for me. Tapas to eat, sangria to drink, narrow medieval streets to walk

Asshat.

I'm working on a cereal for Todd, too.

(Just in case - Kidding, Todd, kidding. We're not worthy.)

Franklin

I got it - Frosted Floor.

Okay, I'm done.

Dan

Modern Art Nuts?

Dan

I do like how all threads come to a virtual halt once Todd calls everyone out for having no lives.

MS

I do like how all threads come to a virtual halt once Todd calls everyone out for having no lives.

Well, also - don't tell the boss - the work day ended.

sarah hromack

AAaaaaaaaahhhhhhh! Dork out!

(She snarks, before enslaving herself in a critical theory grad program come fall.)

Todd

OK, so that last line of mine was rude and uncalled for. So in pennance I'll be wearing the asshat and answering to "wanker" for the next couple days.

I appologize.

Miguel Sánchez

OK, so that last line of mine was rude and uncalled for.

D00D! Don't sweat it - we're just messing with you. Part of our approach to the level of intellect and maturity found in the politcal side of the blog world.

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